Saturday, October 11, 2008

"It's the Movie, stupid!" (Body Of Lies 'dissapoints' because it didn't look any good, not because of false star power)

With the would-be third place opening of Body Of Lies, you can expect a torrent of articles in the next few days about the death of the star vehicle, the breakdown of the star system, and how the studios should just stop paying such exuberant star salaries. Hell, Patrick Goldstein Of The LA Times preemptively wrote such an article last week, agreeing with John Horn's correct prediction that Beverly Hills Chihuahua would again take the weekend and that Body Of Lies would come in second place. Of course, Quarantine opened number one last night, but the top-three are tight enough to presume that the horror flick will experience more drop-off and front loading than the popular family film and the adult thriller.

Point being, the film underperformed because it just didn't look very good. The trailers were shockingly generic, tossing in visual cliches from the Bourne series to go along with the narrative that seemed shockingly similar to Spy Game (directed by Tony Scott, natch). As for the tag of 'under performing', it still bested the opening to DiCaprio's Blood Diamond and may tie Crowe's 3:10 To Yuma, both of which had solid legs and eventually made about $55 million. And Blood Diamond made another $115 million overseas (3:10 did $15 million overseas, because it was a Lionsgate picture). And heavy overseas potential is the real reason that Warner was willing to spend as much and hire those specific actors.
For what it's worth, a $13 million weekend for Body Of Lies would put it squat in the average opening weekend range for both Crowe and DiCaprio. Just because The Departed once opened to $28 million and Gladiator once opened to $32 million doesn't mean that every picture that involves Crowe and DiCaprio should be expected to perform to those levels. And both actors have only had four $100 million grossers in their respective careers. If we expect every film they make to become the fifth or highest grossing film of their lives, that's just a silly expectation.  Studios may not care, but pundits never seem to learn that you just can't toss a big star into any old project and expect it to perform like said-star's biggest pictures. Star power helps. Stars are there to make an interesting movie look more enticing and to seal the deal. They are not the whole package, unless they are named Will Smith, in which case they are worth $30 million for each and every picture they make.
What so many people don't get, on both sides of the isle, is that movie stars are only worth X dollars for Y project. Tobey McGuire is worth whatever they want to pay him for Spider-Man 4, but he's barely worth a million in anything else. Ditto Christian Bale. If he wants $40 million for Batman 3/Shadow Of The Bat/etc, he should get it. But if Bale demands more than $5 million for anything else, he should be laughed out of the room. Certain actors run into trouble when they demand franchise dollars for non-franchise pictures. Brendan Fraser knew he was worth $12.5 million for The Mummy Returns, so he took it and ran like hell, knowing that he'd never get that kind of payday again.  For example, Iron Man is a perfect case of 'right actor right project'. It's why The Soloist will not open to $98 million despite starring Downey Jr and Jamie Fox (will Fox go 'full crazy' or just charmingly eccentric?). Did Downey help Iron Man a lot? Of course, certainly in the long run via word of mouth. But it was the brand, the macho marketing, and the summer-kick off slot that helped far more than Downey's offbeat cult popularity. Iron Man looked like a very good movie, and the reviews appeared to bear that out. That it starred Robert Downey Jr. was just icing on the cake.

The problem arises if studios and pundits believe that any action or genre film starring Robert Downey Jr. should do Iron Man business. Analysts and pundits are forever judging a star's latest picture by the standard of their big franchises. So somehow Viggo Hortenson's 2004 period horse race adventure Hildago is a failure despite opening at $18.5 million, right? Because, hey, Return Of The King opened to $73 million just two months ago.  Body Of Lies is a relative disappointment because the marketing was unable to make a seemingly bad movie look enticing. It failed because it looked like a dumbed-down glossier remake of Spy Game. And, perhaps, it underwhelmed because Eagle Eye had already filled some moviegoer's need for a paranoid left of center political thriller. It didn't help that Eagle Eye's marketing made it resemble a Ridley Scott/Tony Scott picture, making the genuine article look derivative.

Conversely The Departed and American Gangster opened well because they had rock-solid marketing campaigns, studios that aggressively pushed the pictures, and reviews that signified an alleged high quality (and, to be fair, bigger stars in Matt Damon and Denzel Washington). As far as opening weekend gross is concerned, Leonardo DiCaprio in a good movie that looks appealing is worth far more than he is in bad movie and can't find a hook to sell itself.  Sometimes, it really is just 'the movie' (stupid).

Scott Mendelson

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